Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

April 11, 2011

Collaboration takes much more than just talk

By Todd Cohen

Collaboration has to be one of the most bloated, overworked and misunderstood buzzwords in the charitable marketplace.

Funders and donors preach and demand it. Trade groups and consultants peddle it. And nonprofits, nodding to the sermonizing of their funders and donors, pay endless lip service to it.

Sadly, far too few of any of them actually practice it or even know what it is or what it takes to make it work.

Collaboration sounds great in theory.

But in practice, it can prove to be slippery, complicated, risky and sometimes plain unworkable.

The damaged economy has unleashed still more hot air in the nonprofit sector about the importance of collaboration, with much of that big talk from the same crowd that has shamelessly pushed it for years without joining collaborative efforts themselves, or investing their own resources to make collaborations happen.

But long before the financial-services industry and its government collaborators trampled all over the economy, wreaking havoc for already-strained nonprofits and the people and places they serve, some smart and gutsy nonprofits were working the trenches and hammering out ways to work together to build their own capacity and better serve clients.

Consider some pioneering efforts in North Carolina.

Formed in 2003, the Children and Family Services Center in Charlotte houses 10 agencies that serve families and kids.

The center provides those agencies with shared back-office services, works to boost their capacity and lower their costs, and has saved them a total of over $8 million.

Now, a Community Catalyst Fund created at Foundation for the Carolinas to make grants to spur efficiency, effectiveness and innovation at local nonprofits has made a grant to the Child and Family Service Center to test the feasibility of expanding its shared human-resources services to other nonprofits in the region.

That fund also is investing in NPower Charlotte, a nonprofit that provides technology training and consulting for nonprofits, and also serves under contract as the information-technology department for about 30 local nonprofits, including Foundation for the Carolinas.

And in Raleigh, InterAct of Wake County and eight other agencies it houses provide a one-stop shop that offers a broad range of services to adults and children who have suffered from domestic violence or rape and sexual assault.

While operating independently, the nine agencies serve the same clients and meet once a month to share information about their programs and operations, and talk about ways to work together and better coordinate services for clients.

Like our democracy, which serves as the seedbed for the nonprofit sector, nonprofit collaboration is hard work that is slow, messy and always a work in progress.

It rarely, if ever, works the way the models developed by consulting firms and academic researchers suggest it should work, in large part because no two groups of would-be partners, and no two partnerships, are the same, and because the conditions and the marketplace in which they must survive are in a state of continual change.

Collaboration requires leaders who listen and adapt, and who encourage others inside and outside their organizations to lead, learn and grow.

It requires being open to honest criticism and new ideas, and being willing to share power and resources.

Yet in practice, executives and officers at many leading foundations, trade groups and nonprofits cannot abide having their ideas or judgment questioned or their power diminished in any way, despite all their philanthropically-correct talk about “transparency” and “teamwork.”

As the North Carolina initiatives make clear, reflecting the efforts of a small but growing corps of innovative partnerships throughout the U.S., collaboration can indeed work.

But it requires patience, the ability to listen and adapt, the willingness to truly share power and resources, the courage to make mistakes and learn from them, and the grit to keep trying until a particular partnership no longer makes sense.

The proof of whether collaboration works is in actually making the effort to work together to better serve people and places in need.

The rest are just empty words from people who are leaders in title only.

Succeeding in the new nonprofit marketplace

“Thriving, not surviving, in a tough economy will be the focus on a Philanthropy Journal webinar on April 19 led by Sylvia Oberle, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The webinar will highlight specific strategies in operations, programs and fundraising that will help nonprofit staff and board members lead their organizations toward positive change.To find out more about the webinar, and to register, click here.

I hope you will join PJ and Sylvia Oberle for this webinar on a topic of great importance to all of us who work in the nonprofit sector.


  • At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Nice discussion. My experience is that collaboration is a tool that needs to be used properly to be effective. We should neither fetishize nor give mere lip service to collaboration but look to see how our constituents/beneficiaries can be best served. Collaboration is often, although not always, the way. First, when doing something would take us outside our core competencies, we should seriously look at collaborating with others who have those competencies. Second, we should look to form
    concrete, even if limited, collaborations rather than seek to jump right into bed with new partners. Kind of like dating for a while before deciding to get married. Understand first and foremost what is in the best
    interests of your intended beneficiaries, then what is in your own organization's interest. Finally, be willing to help another organization even if it you can't see any immediate or even far away payback to your
    organization. With ample good will built up, when opportunities for mutually advantageous collaboration arise, you will be in a position to take advantage of them on short notice.

  • At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Maybe domestic NP's should take some lessons from international NGOs who have been collaborating since their inception.


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